Proving Grounds and Diamonds in the Rough

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Comics writers Joe Casey and Matt Fraction have a good column at Comic Book Resources this week about comics anthologies, their importance, and what’s going on with them.

It’s fortuitous timing, as I’d been thinking about the same thing this week, work just prevented me from getting a post up on the topic before Casey and Fraction beat me to it.

The accepted wisdom about comics anthologies these days is that they don?t work: they don’t sell, they’re only as strong as their weakest stories, people want longer stories, not shorter ones.

Some of these things are, no doubt, true. It’s easy enough to test out whether anthologies sell or not – after all, when was the last time anthology titles dominated comics? The 50s, when EC’s line of titles were crushing everything else on the market?

The other two ideas – that anthologies vary wildly in quality and that short stories aren’t where it’s at anymore – are matters of taste, I imagine.

Sure, a lot of anthologies are crammed with bad stories, nearly choking the life out of the good ones they surround. But when those good stories are really good, I find that it’s all worth it.

And yes, with the trend toward the graphic novel in comics (and good on the industry for it. It’s the future), the short story does seem to be going the way of the romance comic. But that’s a shame. As I’ve written recently, I love the short form, the challenges that it poses, the restrictions that it requires, the laser-focus that it demands from its practitioners.

The anthology, both in comics and in fiction, serves a crucial function (and this is part of Casey and Fraction’s argument): it’s a proving ground for new talent. It’s the place that people can try new ideas, new styles, can polish their craft before jumping into novels, graphic novels, etc. This is amazingly important for the development of new talent.

One of the reasons that I love anthologies ties into this development of new talent – the discovery of new talent. Anthologies give you a chance to sample someone’s work, to be surprised by someone you’ve never heard of, to be discover that small, shining gem in a field of otherwise dull stones. Can you think of many better feelings than that – the feeling of discovering some new artist who only you (or so it feels) knows about? And then being able to follow that person into their future work? That’s terrific stuff.

And this is why we need anthologies: we need a showcase for new talent, a place for artists to develop their craft out of the spotlight so their major works are more developed, mature, and satisfying. And we need the thrill of discovery.

Without anthologies, I’d never have found Bernie Krigstein, Johnny Craig, or Graham Ingels (all great EC Comics artists).

Without anthologies, I would never had read Dan Chaon, Joyce Carol Oates, or Bentley Little (all excellent authors of the strange, grotesque, and affecting).

Without anthologies, I wouldn’t have seen Tomer Hanuka or Farel Dalrymple (top indie comics artists).

Without all these people, my artistic life would be so much poorer.

Before I go, here are just a few anthologies that I think are great and worth your time to check out:

McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales – terrific genre stories by non-genre writers, edited by Michael Chabon

Western Tales of Terror

Meathaus – top experimental indie comics

This American Life – you might not think of a radio show as an anthology, but this sure is. Listen to the “Cruelty of Children? episode for one of the most harrowing short stories I’ve ever heard or read.

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